Anticipation and Climate Change

In his beautiful new book Finding and Seeking, Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan offers an extended critique of what he calls “anticipation” as a basis for moral deliberation. Anticipation is of a “middle-distance future” stemming from our actions, differing from the immediate “nearer future” of the specific purpose of our actions and the “further future” which, for Christianity, rests on the virtue of hope. O’Donovan suggests that good decision-making involves some anticipation, but it “must be kept in its place,” because our ability to control the middle-distance future is “fragile.” We all know this from experience: if we are contemplating a job change, we may see specific benefits and costs that will immediately result from it, and we may (as Christians) hope that we are contributing to God’s purposes for the world. But we can’t really know very clearly, five years down the road, how life will “look different” if we take the job or refuse it. What other opportunities might come along? What happens if there is a change in the business model of the company? The questions are virtually endless. Thus, if we get stuck on a “demand for definiteness” by relying on fragile anticipation, we may never decide, and we certainly won’t decide well.

O’Donovan’s larger concern here is how our public life increasingly is determined by this “demand for definiteness.” Candidates and official offer plans, and they are evaluated based on “what will happen.” This inevitably results in two problems. One, there arises “a preference for the short-term focus,” where predictability is most assured. Two, any attempts at a longer-term focus means “we must pretend to have a scientific statistical prediction, precisely in order to suit our generalized conception of what responsible decision-making ought to be.” But such “predictions” are of course exceedingly fragile, resulting in “a constant confusion of speculative anticipation with hard science.” The answer to “what will happen” if, say, the minimum wage is raised is uncertain – not entirely, of course, and economists can offer some reasonable claims about the trade-offs. If labor is more expensive, a business will have to think about various options – but even here, the options are quite different in different circumstances, with different business plans, in different places and industries. While all of this has value for prudence, it must be “put in its place” – one cannot say that minimum wage increases simply produce either “good” or “bad” results. The question must be subordinated to the question of how society as a whole maintains just wages over time.

But O’Donovan’s essay really made me think about the upcoming environmental encyclical and the place of climate change within it. “Anticipating” the effects of climate change is many orders of magnitude more difficult (but also more weighty!) than the effects of a job change or a minimum wage increase. Extreme weather events, like the unprecedented rainfall totals in Texas and Oklahoma or the ongoing drought in California, inevitably bring up the question of how temperature changes in the atmosphere affect weather patterns. THAT weather patterns are affected is not questionable; HOW they are affected is much more fragile. Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds, especially given our shockingly blasé attitude toward, say, the year 2100, a year we would expect children born today to live to see. But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity. I was in a conversation earlier this year where someone from the Boston area stated that she had long driven small cars, but that this winter, she had finally had enough and bought an SUV. What is one to do in this situation? What the person definitely knows is that the SUV will help her endure such winters, and the “anticipation” of the world in 2100 may not be a very strong counter.

All this points to something key about the environment encyclical: our news coverage and public policy is fixated on the “demand for definiteness,” and the question of what the pope has said about climate change will get a lot of attention. This is unfortunate. The moral weight of this encyclical – and any encyclical – does not rest on “anticipation.” Instead, it will likely rest on very traditional, core beliefs about two things. One, God has ordered creation. The Psalm response for today’s daily mass was “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” That’s not a prediction; that is a wisdom teaching about the good order of the world, which we arrogantly mess with at our peril. It’s also not a prediction that we are messing with it; that’s just clear. We are essentially using the atmosphere as an infinite waste dump – one might not wrongly say, “by the exhaust of our cars, the heavens were remade.”

And why are we doing that? For some good purpose? The likely emphasis on “integral ecology” will suggest that our disordering of creation is intertwined with a failure to love our neighbor in the fashion Christ tells us to. Put another way, the problem with big cars isn’t (simply) the “anticipated” effects of all this fossil fuel use; rather, cars are bad for loving your neighbor. Now, I’m not saying that somehow cars are per se bad. I’m saying cars – or at least an absolute reliance on them – is bad for human ecology, not just for natural ecology. Cars may in fact be the most important social strategy in America for people to avoid the problems of the poor. But even at a simpler level, what preacher has not used the example of our “response” to other drivers as an occasion where we express blatant anger at our neighbors?

We shouldn’t make environmental issues all about one thing, like cars. It’s not. But one of the major structures of sin that make reasonable efforts to deal with climate change so hard is we’ve built a society where we’re very attached to our cars. And my point here is that the Church’s concern for natural ecology is based on a belief, already stated clearly by Popes John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, nos. 37-38) and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51), that environmental bads are rooted not only in a lack of care for creation, but in a lack of real love for our neighbors. Excessive energy use is rooted deeply in our individualism, our preference for going our own way, whatever it is, rather than cooperation and interdependence. Francis won’t need to rely on the fragile foundation of “anticipation” in order to tell us that.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections
Collections